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Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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The Hunting Incident

It started out well enough...

It started so innocently…

“Mom, can we bring the pup?” asks Kai, gazing up with expectant hazel eyes, the freckle under his left eye illuminated in early afternoon sun. I glance at our dog, Coco: a small whitish mass of downy fluff and energy, her tail alert and wagging.

“Sure,” I say. “She’s part of the family, too, right?”

My children, Kai and Rory, exclaim “Yay!” in unison. Kai takes Coco’s leash from its hook in the laundry room, attaches the leash to Coco’s black collar, and stands and salutes, saying, “Ready for takeoff, ma’am!” Rory follows suit, also saluting. She giggles. Her freckled cheeks giggle with her.  The dog sneezes.

We open the door to a gentle easterly fall breeze, and pile into the car for a hike in nearby hills.

*

Our valley had its first snow a few days earlier, ironically, on the calendar’s first day of autumn: snow sheathed the higher rocky crags, and icy confetti dotted our driveway.  I mused on Mother Nature’s harsh whims, knowing better but nevertheless pressing a grey smudge of bitterness on my heart.  The weather gave us a short reprieve, and I seized the chance to venture out – with the kids, the dog, and the camera – in search of changing leaves.

We drove to Power Plant Road, and started up a trail that leads to a peak overlooking the valley. Kai offered to walk Coco so that Rory and I could take pictures. We passed two hunters dressed in dark camouflage suits, a common sight during the annual hunting season.  They knelt in the dirt with their backs to us, rinsing their hands in a stream of snow run-off, and talking in low, deep voices.  We continued up the trail with Kai and Coco in the lead. Kai stopped abruptly.

“Mom?” he asked. “Mom, what’s that?”  He pointed.

“What’s what?” I said, unzipping the camera bag and wrestling out the camera.  My eyes followed Kai’s finger and saw a bright red leg, deftly removed of skin, with muscle, bone, and hoof in tact.  A precise cube of venison steak lay in the dirt by my feet; stringy maroon entrails scattered along the path in the short distance between us.

“Is that blood, mom?” asked Kai, who is squeamish about everything related to internal anatomy. He presses his hands to his eyes during portions of movies or television shows that involve the handling or manipulation of flesh. “Sorry,” he says, genuinely apologetic. “It’s just that it makes me feel yucky inside.”  He gags at the sight of blood and prefers to eat things that grow from the earth.

Around us, autumn’s leaves succumbed to winter; they changed colors, but the colors were muted and pale.  The deer leg offered the brightest hue for miles.  I looked at Kai, who stared at the neatly severed leg with uncharacteristic calm. His arms strained to hold Coco, the only hunter among us, pawing at the dirt and sniffing furiously.  The sun shone warmly on my skin, but I felt chilled.  Distant gunshots pierced the air.

“Come on back down, you guys,” I said, as coolly as I could, though even I felt yucky inside. “Don’t let the dog get that meat,” I added.

The hunters had left; clouds of dust swirled in the wake of their four-wheelers.  I have never hunted, but I was puzzled.  Why would anyone leave such a huge portion of meat behind after going to the trouble of killing the deer?  Would the hunter return to claim what remained?  We did not linger to find out.

*

When I was a child visiting my grandfather in Idaho, we said grace before meals. Grandpa spent most of his career working in Africa as a physician and missionary for the Lutheran church.  He dreamt in vivid detail and often recounted his dreams at the breakfast table: wild tales of hunting and harrowing near-death experiences, the tableau of his memories translated into the larger-than-life adventures of his subconscious mind.  Grandpa hunted and fished for sustenance as well as survival. Saying grace was his way of honoring the providence of his Lord.  The naked affront of flesh on the trail brought his voice back to me.

We thank you, Lord, for this meal we are about to receive and for the blessings you give to us each day…

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sustenance you provide to our bodies and to our souls…

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed…

*

Winter brings deer down from the mountains into our high desert valley.  Their trails scissor the deep, impacted snow.  They nibble at bare hedges and bound fences easily.  The deer congregate in clusters, trotting past the house, lingering underneath the trampoline with luminous black eyes, watchful but emboldened.

Coco invariably barks at them.  I’ve seen Coco confront a doe, who held eye contact with the dog, lifting and lowering her head repeatedly as if to say, Don’t cross me, runt. I suspect the doe’s powerful hooves would trump Coco’s teeth in a fight.  Exiles of the snow, the deer seek what sustenance they can find, wherever and however they can find it.

There was a time when I, the reformed Yankee, frowned upon hunting. But time and knowledge changed me.  If deer in our valley proliferated unchecked, they would render our gardens bare without so much as a guilty exhale, clearing trees and shrubs of foliage, chewing lettuces flat to the ground. My friend – a true Renaissance man who bakes his own bread, bottles wine from grapes and fruits he’s grown, and gardens by principle – lost acres and months of gardening effort to a single family of deer last year despite preventative barriers. The deer ravaged his extensive garden overnight.  Deer graze everything, and they reproduce rapidly.  They multiply, despite their high rate of roadside casualties. Do I see myself hunting?  No, but I understand the practicality of hunting in my area.

*

As a meat eater, albeit an occasional one, I acknowledge my complicity in the demise of animals who, while not hunted, are born and raised to give their lives for my supper.  I may not wield the gun, but I purchase and consume the spoils.  The plastic-wrapped parcels I buy are a different version of the same primal hunger.  Meat is flesh; organs are organs. The bare leg on the trail confronted me with this humbling reminder.

My grandfather died years ago, and my practice of saying grace at the table died with him.  His spirit has not left me, however, so instead I practice gratitude, sprinkling my thanks on plates of crunchy fried chicken and seasoning my meals with care.

The deer distressed me. Is it common for hunters to leave unwanted meat? Are deer legs undesirable cuts, and if so, why go to the trouble of skinning an entire leg only to leave it, carelessly strewn in the woods? Why make the effort of killing the animal, only to waste such a considerable part of it?  It struck me as an appalling lack of regard: towards other humans and, more importantly, the deer itself. I think I heard my grandfather’s voice that day to tether me, to remind me of what it means to be grateful.  His voice rustled through the pale leaves, whispering condolences for a loss wholly lacking grace.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013

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Crush With Buttermilk

Memories and flavors three generations deep…

I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street.  I watch Grandpa across the table.  His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun.  Grandpa lowers his head to say grace.  “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.”  Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head.  “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.”  His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap.  “In Christ’s name, we pray.  Amen.”  I amen a couple of beats too late.  The wind chime tinkles.  Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!”  He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well.  I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.”  He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath.  His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists.  He hands me my bowl with a wink.

Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia.  For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing.  My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked.  Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches.  I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch.  Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail.  I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.

More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side.  My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth.  Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness.  Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.

As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks.  So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk.  I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat.  I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits.  I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family.  Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep.  I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.

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